15

SHE WAS AS good as her word. I’d barely had time to get back to the room and wash my face and dig a windbreaker out of my suitcase and tell Carol as much as was good for her to know when there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there was Seсor Ramуn Solana-Ruiz, dressed pretty much as I’d first seen him, in his business suit, white shirt, and tie.

His shoes were polished to a luster that was quite commendable, considering the dusty surroundings. As a concession to the desert, however, he’d added a pair of sunglasses to his outfit-or perhaps he just liked the slightly sinister look the big, dark, curving lenses gave to his handsome Latin face. He bowed ceremoniously when I introduced him to Carol.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Lujan.”

“You’re very kind to let us come along,” Carol said. “Will I be allowed to take some pictures, Mr. Solana?”

“By all means. Do you have much equipment? Perhaps you would prefer to follow in your car so you will be less crowded. We will go first to the hotel in town, if you do not mind. I want to question the surviving victim, a Mr. Gregory Henderson, from Los Angeles, California. He came down here to fish over the weekend, I understand.”

“Was he badly hurt?”

“No, apparently he just received some minor burns when he tried to rescue his wife, who died in the fire, but of course the experience was a great shock to him. We will talk with him first, and then we will drive out to examine what is left of his vehicle and camper-that is the name given to those housekeeping units designed for mounting on trucks, is it not? Then, if you wish, you may accompany us to view the body, although I am told it is not a pleasant sight.”

Carol winced, but said bravely, “I’d better cover everything while I have the chance. You never know what shots those crazy people in New York are going to want. Let me get some things together. I won’t be a moment.”

Solana watched her move away across the room. In spite of the impenetrable glasses that masked his face, it was clear that he was favorably impressed-and she did look kind of nice in her crisp safari suit, with a high-necked white sweater replacing, for warmth, the thin blouse she’d worn earlier. When she straightened up, loaded with gear, he hurried forward to help her carry the stuff out to the station wagon.

I followed behind them, and spotted Priscilla Decker waiting by the cars. “Maybe you should have stuck to your nice-girl routine,” I said to her with a grin. “Maybe obvious challenges aren’t what turn Mr. Solana on.”

Priscilla laughed. “That’s all right. He can carry her cameras all he wants, just so it’s my fanny he pinches.” She shivered slightly, and started to put her arms into the sleeves of the quilted jacket she’d been wearing over her shoulders like a cape. “My God, that wind is like ice! And here I thought I was coming to another tropical paradise like Mazatlбn!”

I helped her on with the jacket, which looked like a stray from the ski slopes. It was the same lavender, or orchid, color as her skintight pants.

“And I was congratulating myself on finally having promoted a car with air-conditioning,” I said wryly. “Incidentally, thanks.”

“You see, I keep my promises,” Priscilla said. “I hope you do, too… partner.”

Puerto Peсasco proper turned out to be a much smaller and more primitive community than Mazatlбn, with narrow, twisting, unpaved streets fighting their way through cracks between the mud houses. The adults didn’t look very prosperous; and dirty, barefoot kids were everywhere. I reminded myself that shoes and baths are not really essential to a child’s happiness; as a boy, I’d avoided them myself whenever possible.

The hotel, in the center of town, was a rather impressive stone building. Even the interior walls were stone, so that the hallway down which we were led resembled a tunnel through a mountain of masonry. A man in khakis was waiting for us. He had a holstered automatic pistol at his hip. He ushered us into Gregory Henderson’s room, and left us there, returning to his post outside.

The small room, with its heavy stone walls, had the atmosphere of a cave, or a monastic cell, but the occupant was obviously no hermit or monk. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing cheap, gaudy pajamas that had presumably been obtained for him locally. His hands were bandaged, and his face had an odd, pink, staring look: apparently he’d managed to scorch the skin a bit and burn off most of his eyebrows and lashes.

He was a young man in his middle twenties with an unfortunate resemblance to another young man I’d met recently: the streaky-blond beach-boy character calling himself Tony Hartford, who’d got himself shot by Harsek. The young man on the bed didn’t really look much like Tony, being bigger and darker, but he did have something of the same self-conscious, hair-combing, mirror-watching good looks, only slightly marred by fire. I was surprised that he’d been brave enough to get himself burned at all, but then I’m prejudiced against the species. After all, Tony had apparently been brave enough to get himself shot. I don’t suppose there’s any real reason to think a man must lack courage because he fusses with his hair.

Henderson did it now, smoothing down his wavy dark locks automatically as he rose and reached for a cotton robe on a nearby chair, and stuck his feet into a pair of huaraches that looked very stiff and new.

“Maybe you can tell me when I’m going to get some clothes to wear,” he said aggressively to Solana. “All my stuff was burned, you know. Your people here keep promising to scrounge me up something, but it’s been a typical maсana operation so far. Always clothes tomorrow, never clothes today. I’m getting damn tired of lying around in pajamas, particularly these pajamas. My God, they’re so loud they keep me awake when I try to take a nap!”

Solana said smoothly, “The haberdashery facilities of Puerto Peсasco are rather limited, Seсor, but I will see what I can do. I hope you are feeling better.”

“I’m all right. What do you want, and who are all those characters? I’m beginning to feel like a monkey in a zoo.”

“I apologize for the intrusion. Mrs. Lujan, Miss Decker, Mr. Helm, Mr. Henderson. Mrs. Lujan is a magazine photographer, Seсor. She would like some pictures, if you don’t mind, but first I would like you to tell us what happened last night.”

“I’ve already told your boys “I have read the report of the local authorities, Seсor. However, there were certain language difficulties, were there not? I would prefer to hear it from you, so I can be sure there are no errors of translation. The incident took place in the evening, just after dark, did it not?”

“That’s right. We’d been out fishing-we’d trailered our boat down here from L.A.-and we came in late. Edie warmed us up something for dinner…

“That is your wife, Mrs. Edith Henderson?”

“That’s right. Except you’re using the wrong tense, aren’t you?” Henderson’s voice was bitter. “Whatever kind of things you’ve got flying around down here, they fixed Edie, damn them! They almost fixed me, too.”

“They? You saw more than one flying object?”

Henderson drew a long breath. “No. I guess I was well, hamming it up a bit. There was only the one. That was enough. That was plenty!”

“Please tell us what happened.”

“Sure. Edie was doing the dishes. She told me the garbage can was full, would I empty it so we wouldn’t have to smell it all night. I said sure, and took it out to where we’d dug a pit, out behind the camper. I dumped the can and was kicking some sand over the stuff when I… well, I just kind of felt this thing up there. I mean, it wasn’t making any noise or anything, but I looked up and there It was, coming in from the east, inland. The sun was down by now, but the sky was still light, and I could see it plainly, kind of in silhouette, if you know what I mean.”

Solana said, “Can you give us a description?”

Henderson shrugged. “Like I say, it was just a silhouette, kind of flat and round with a dome thing on top, say like half a marble sitting on a fifty-cent piece. Well, the main hull, if that’s what you call it, was thicker than that and kind of tapering towards the edges, but that’s the general idea.”

“Were there any markings you could see, Seсor?”

“No.” Henderson shook his head positively. “It just looked black to me, against the sky. I couldn’t tell you the color, or markings, or anything like that.”

“And it made no sound?”

“That’s right. I started back towards the camper to call Edie out so she could see it, and then I realized it was coming straight at me, getting bigger by the second. It was fast as hell; it was on top of me before I knew it. I thought it was going to hit me, and I threw myself face down in a little wash or arroyo. I don’t mind telling you I was scared. Then there was a kind of whooshing noise, and all the heat in the world, and I scrambled up to see the camper burning. All I could think of was Edie, and I tried to get in to her, but I couldn’t make it.” He looked down at his bandaged hands. After a moment, he went on: “There was a little explosion inside and it set my clothes on fire. I had to throw myself down again and roll around to put it out, and while I was doing that, the whole thing blew like a bomb. Maybe it was the butane tanks letting go, or something. I don’t know. I… I don’t remember much else.”

“Then you did not see the actual attack,” Solana said after a little pause. “You cannot say what kind of weapon was used.”

“No, I told you. I was flat on my face in the arroyo. If I’d thought Edie was in danger… But it came at me so fast, all I could think of was to duck.”

Solana frowned. “Mr. Henderson, can you explain why this object picked your camp to attack?”

“Hell, no!” Henderson said. “Don’t you think I haven’t been wondering about that, myself? Of course, we were parked some distance from the rest of the camp. Like Edie used to say, you don’t go camping to live in somebody else’s pocket. At least we don’t… well, didn’t.” His face was angry. “And now maybe you can tell me just what the hell is going on around here. And just what the hell are you doing to stop it? If innocent American tourists can’t come to Sonora for a weekend of fishing without being attacked by mysterious gizmos from the sky-“

“Mr. Henderson, we are doing our best to deal with the problem,” Solana said smoothly. “And in the meantime I will make sure that you are supplied with suitable clothes as soon as possible. Now, if you are willing, Mrs. Lujan would like to get a few photographs.”

We didn’t actually have to twist his arm. In fact, despite his shock and grief, we had a hard time getting out of there with some film left unexposed. He wasn’t exactly camera-shy, is what I’m trying to say.

Outside again, we followed Solana’s eyeless Oldsmobile out of town. It had a big, blunt rear end derived from current racing practice: the two-hundred-mph boys have discovered some aerodynamic reason for sawing their cars off short these days, and Detroit has climbed right on the bandwagon. Well, it beats the fins we had waving behind us a few years back.

The campground was a few miles north of Puerto Peсasco. It was reached by an unpaved road through the coastal dunes that gave us no real difficulties; but I had a hunch it was no place to stray from the beaten track without a jeep or beach buggy. The place was called Bahia Choya, and it turned out to be a crowded community of pickup campers and house trailers- excuse me, mobile homes-situated on a blue, sheltered bay diagonally across which, far to the north, could be seen the shimmering white sands of what I guessed to be the real desert, the gran desierto at the head of the Gulf of California.

The bay itself was pretty enough, for that barren coast. The campground was something else again, cluttered and trashy. I have the old-fashioned notion that camping is something you do to get away from the crowd, and I could sympathize with the late Edith Henderson for preferring a location away from this outdoor slum.

We spotted the remains of the burned-out rig a short distance back in the dunes, and left the cars at the edge of the solid road, and went in on foot. The fact that Henderson’s truck had made it didn’t guarantee that our low-clearance passenger vehicles wouldn’t bog down in the soft stuff. It had been quite an outfit, I saw; not just one of those little metal cabs you slip onto the ranch pickup after you’ve finished hauling hay to the horses, but a real traveling cottage mounted permanently on a one-ton chassis.

The interior of the camper unit was pretty well gutted, and the explosion had blown out the roof, door, and windows, and bulged the walls, leaving the blackened bed, stove, and refrigerator, and the half-consumed plywood cabinets, staring at the sky. I walked up thoughtfully and ran my finger along the ribbed aluminum of the side, where it was still bright and shiny. I was aware that Solana had come up beside me. His expression was masked by the large, dark glasses-shades, as we hippies call them.

“What is your opinion, Seсor Helm?”

“Where was the body found?” I asked.

“On the bed.” I said, “Those little men from outer space are real ingenious, aren’t they?”

“SI, Seсor. That is my thought. What conclusions do you draw?”

“I’m no detective, and if I were, I wouldn’t admit it here.” I threw a glance towards Carol, busy with her cameras. “To her, I’m just an innocent bystander, an old friend coming along for the ride. At least that’s the idea I’m supposed to be selling her.”

“I will keep it in mind. As an old friend, do you mind if I ask her to have dinner with me?”

I glanced at him quickly. “You’re a fast worker, amigo.”

“I haven’t asked yet.”

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll solace myself with the lady in lavender. If you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.” He smiled. “Tastes differ, Seсor. Personally, I find American women in tight trousers rather unattractive. I merely gave her transportation as a matter of international courtesy.”

It was a good joke on Priscilla, after the pains to which she’d gone to render herself seductive, but I kept my face straight, and switched the conversation back to business: “Do you have a medical report on the body?”

“Not yet,” Solana said. “The medical facilities here are limited, but I had a specialist flown in. I had a feeling we might need him. He is working on it now. He has instructions to be very thorough. I’m afraid we have not been investigating certain aspects of these phenomena quite as carefully as we should have. Perhaps we have taken too much for granted.” He glanced at his watch. “The doctor should be finished by the time we get back to town. I do not think there is anything else for us to learn here. I will see if Mrs. Lujan has all the pictures she wants.”

He went over to where Carol was changing film. She looked up and asked him something, and he made a little bow of assent, and posed by the blackened wreckage of the truck while she worked around him with the cameras. Priscilla was wandering around kind of aimlessly, as if she wasn’t especially interested in murder from the sky. She came over to me.

“Do you think there’s anything significant in the fact that the victims were U.S. tourists, Matt?” she asked. “Remember, the same thing was true in Mazatlбn.”

“With the addition of a couple of Mexicans running the fishing boat, who also got clobbered,” I said. “Well, maybe it’s a clue, but I think there have been plenty of incidents involving only natives. Ask Solana.”

“Seсor Solana seems to be busy elsewhere,” Priscilla said dryly.

“Sure. He’s asking my girlfriend to dinner. He has my permission. I have his permission to ask you to dinner. All the formalities have been complied with. What do you say?”

She was studying me closely. “Are you being clever, Matt?”

“No,” I said. “Not very. I’d just like to know what, besides the lady’s undeniable charm, makes our moustached friend so eager for her company at just this point in the investigation. Okay?”

Priscilla was frowning. “You sound… you sound as if you weren’t quite sure of your snooty blonde. Or Solana either.”

I grinned. “The last time I was sure of somebody, really positive beyond a shadow of doubt, it cost me three weeks in the hospital…Well, well. It looks as if the Latin charm is working. I hope you don’t mind riding back with me.”

She watched Solana guiding Carol towards the Oldsmobile, and said a trifle grimly, “Well, it’s obviously either that or walking, isn’t it?”

I said, “Incidentally, I don’t believe he really pinched your fanny. He says he finds American women in tight pants rather unattractive.”

She stuck out her tongue at me, and got into the station wagon. We followed Solana’s car back to town. When we arrived at the house doing temporary duty as morgue and laboratory, the doctor had completed his examination and tests. We were allowed to see the body, and it was no treat. We were informed that it was the body of a woman in her late thirties who had burned to death, all right-but only after ingesting enough chloral hydrate to knock out a horse.

While we were assimilating this information, a man came in, rather breathless, and reported to Solana in rapid-fire Spanish that came too quickly and softly for me to follow it. Solana gave him some orders and turned to us, looking grim.

“It seems that Mr. Henderson has disappeared, under circumstances that demand my attention,” he said. “Will you be so kind as to escort the ladies to the motel, Mr. Helm?” He turned to Carol. “I am very sorry to have to withdraw my dinner invitation almost as soon as it was given, but you understand and forgive me, I hope.”

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